Whether you’re a student of the Broadway musical or just a sailor looking for a darned good time, you could do worse than spend a matinee and evening in Times Square with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. You’d begin at the Lyric Theatre, where a smashing revival of On The Town, their 1944 freshman effort, has been begging for customers since opening last year to rapturous accolades. Then walk a few doors west to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, where a high-spirited revival of the duo’s On The 20th Century, one of their last three shows, opened Sunday. It deserves as long a run one could wish for a charmingly silly homage to the old-fashioned operettas that were once a mainstay of Broadway but whose time had long since passed when the show opened in 1978.
Adapted by Comden & Green from the 1934 Howard Hawks film sparkler (written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur for John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), it’s set entirely on the legendary express train that once connected New York to Chicago in a mere 16 hours.
Peter Gallagher (currently a regular on HBO’s Togetherness) plays Oscar Jaffee, the once-debonair Broadway producer and director who boards the train in Chicago in the wake of his latest overnight flop. The former lover he Svengali-ed from nobody Mildred Plotka into stage and screen star Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies, Wicked) is aboard, and Oscar plots with two cronies to reignite the flame and sign Lily to play Mary Magdelene in what he’s certain will be a surefire hit. Adding to the hijinks, such as they are, is Lily’s vain boy toy Bruce Granit (Rocky‘s very likable Andy Karl), all brawn, no brains. There’s also Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson, Mozart In The Jungle, Nebraska), a religious nut job who may offer Oscar financial redemption.
The composer with whom the sophisticated, smart-ass Comden & Green paired for the original Harold Prince production was Cy Coleman, one of Broadway’s most jazz-struck melodists. Oddly, they chose to emulate the rom-com opera buffas of Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. The result is positively schizoid, a show that desperately wants to crack the shell of archaic convention and emerge as the madcap musical it longs to be. It has patches of memorable high style, slapstick amusement and wry songs, but also longueurs that stretch the 90-minute movie into tedium.
Scott Ellis’s production, whose tone is set by David Rockwell’s Art Deco-inspired set and William Ivey Long’s typically spectacular and endless array of costumes, works very hard at solving the show’s problems, with mixed success. That’s also the case with the stars. Gallagher (whose first starring role on Broadway was in A Doll’s Life, Comden & Green’s all-but-forgotten 1982 followup to this one) has the suave good looks to play Oscar but not the slightly demented charisma called for, and vocals have never been his strong point. Chenoweth certainly has what it takes in the singing department and the crowd adores her. I just wish she wasn’t so charmlessly vulgar with her oversexed physical shtick.
More relaxed in their roles, and thus more of a pleasure to spend time with, are Karl’s cartoonish Bruce and Wilson’s adorable Letitia (yes, I saw the incomparable Kevin Kline and Imogene Coca in the original but really, who cares?), along with Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as Jaffee’s devoted, if exasperated, aides-de-camp.
On The Town shows a great young team going hell-for-leather into Broadway glory, while On The 20th Century reveals them in their twilight, the brilliant magic evident, but fading.